Global Investing

Ukraine and the IMF: a sense of deja vu

The West has just agreed to stump up a load of cash for Ukraine but there is a distinct sense of deja vu around it all.

Let’s face it – Ukraine’s track record on how it manages ts economy and foreign affairs isn’t great. This is the third aid programme Kiev has signed with the International Monetary Fund in a decade and two of them have failed. The IMF has its fingers crossed that this one will not go the way of the past two. Reza Moghadam, the IMF’s top European official, tells Reuters in an interview:

They seem to be committed, they seem to own this reform programme and in that sense I am optimistic

Indeed, Ukraine’s new government has taken some brave and politically unpopular  steps, allowing the currency to depreciate and announcing plans to cut gas subsidies that amount to almost a tenth of its annual GDP, according to IMF data. (Here’s a piece from Breaking Views on the shocking energy waste in Ukraine).

But there’s a long road ahead, says Luis Costa, head of CEEMEA strategy at Citi.  According to Costa:

Braving emerging stocks again

It’s a brave investor who will venture into emerging markets these days, let alone start a new fund. Data from Thomson Reuters company Lipper shows declining appetite for new emerging market funds – while almost 200 emerging debt and equity funds were launched in Europe back in 2011, the tally so far  this year is just 10.

But Shaw Wagener, a portfolio manager at U.S. investor American Funds has gone against the trend, launching an emerging growth and income fund earlier this month.

It’s a great time to launch a fund if you have a long-term focus in mind. Emerging markets trailed DM in terms of performance for a while, peaking at end of 2010 so we are 3-plus years into a down market and period of significant underperformance.

CORRECTED-Toothless or not, Western sanctions bite Russian bonds

(corrects last paragraph to show that Timchenko was Gunvor’s co-founder, not a former CEO)

Western sanctions against Russia lack bite, that’s the consensus. Yet the bonds of some Russian companies have taken a hit, especially the ones whose bosses have been targeted for visa- and asset freezes.

Take state-run Russian Raiways. Its chairman Vladimir Yakunin, a member of President Putin’s inner circle, was on the sanctions list. He said he was flattered to be targeted but investors in his company’s dollar bonds are likely to be less thrilled. Russian Railways’ 2022 bond is now the cheapest quasi-sovereign bond in the emerging markets universe relative to its sovereign, Barclays analysts point out. The bond trades now at a 158 bps premium to Russia’s 2022 issue while the one-year average premium has been 114 bps, Barclays note.

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words:

It’s not end of the world at the Fragile Five

Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding capital-hungry Fragile Five countries, real money managers have not abandoned the ship at all.

Aberdeen Asset Management has overweight equity positions in Indonesia, India, Turkey and Brazil — that’s already 4 of the five countries that have come under market pressure because of their funding deficits.  The fund is also positive on Thailand and the Philippines.

Devan Kaloo, head of global emerging markets at Aberdeen, says these economies have well-run companies that are well positioned to adjust and enjoy slightly higher return on equity (ROE) than their developed counterparts. He says:

Ukraine aid may pay off for Kremlin

Ukraine said today it was issuing a $3 billion in two-year Eurobonds at a yield of 5 percent in what seems to the start of a bailout deal with Russia. That sounds like a good deal for Kiev — its Eurobond maturing next year is trading at at a yield of 8 percent and it could not reasonably expect to tap bond markets for less than that. In addition,  Ukraine is also  getting a gas price discount from Russia that will provide an annual saving of $2.6 billion or so.

But what about Russia? Whether the bailout was motivated by “brotherly love” as Putin claims or by geo-politics, it sounds like a rotten deal for Moscow. The credit will earn it 5 percent on what is at best a risky investment. What’s more the money will come out of its rainy day fund which had been earmarked to cover future pension deficits. State gas company Gazprom will have to stomach a 30 percent price cut, which according to Barclays analysts is “a reminder of the risks of Gazprom’s quasi-sovereign status.”

But there could be positives.

Putin is clearly playing a long game that aims not only at giving the Kremlin tighter political control over Ukraine but also to bring it back into the Russian gas sales orbit and eventually create a bigger trade bloc encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, says Christopher Granville, managing director of consultancy Trusted Sources in London.

Russia’s people problem

President Vladimir Putin is generally fond of blaming the West for the ills besetting Russia. This week though, he admitted in his State of the Nation speech that the roots of Russia’s sluggish economy may lie at home rather than abroad.  The government expects the economy to expand a measly 1.4 percent this year (less than half of the growth the US is likely to see) and long-term growth estimates have been trimmed to 2.5 percent a year.

Much of that is down to the lack of reform which has left many big companies in the state’s (generally wasteful) hands, weak rule of law that deters investment and capital flight to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet there is another factor that could be harder to fix — Russia’s poor demographic profile. The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce.

The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.